Big Think Interview With Robert Wright

A conversation with the author of “The Evolution of God.”
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Robert Wright: My name is Robert Wright, and people call me Bob. I’m Editor in Chief of Bloggingheads.tv and the author of several books, The Evolution of God, The Moral Animal, and Nonzero. 

Question: Why has evolutionary psychology exploded in popularity?

Robert Wright: Well, I think it’s not surprising that evolutionary psychology should be occupying center stage given the fact that the human mind was created by evolution. So, in a way you can ask, why did it take so long? And I think the answer there is two-fold. First of all, there were some genuine kind of refinements, or extensions of the theory of natural selection in the 1960’s early ‘70’s that allowed us to make sense of the not obviously animal parts of human behavior and emotion. Things like altruism, love, the conscience, empathy. So there’s that. And separately, there had been some political resistance to the idea of using Darwin to think of human psychology. And that dates back to political things that have happened in the first half of the 20th century. So, at the same time that there was genuine progress in the field, there was a kind of slow kind of dissipation of the long-standing political resistance. But it wasn’t – it didn’t happen overnight. I mean, when I wrote The Moral Animal in 1994, there was plenty of resistance.

Question: What are the major unanswered questions in evolutionary psychology?

Robert Wright: I think, I really think that the big questions are kind of taken care of in evolutionary psychology. If you look at the landscape of human thought and feeling, the main contours are broadly speaking explained and it’s a question of working out the details. Now, there are little kind of riddles. I mean, there’s no consensus on the origin of, like laughter. And the answer there is, there’s probably no single answer. It’s kind of a lot of little thing converged, or laughter is something that in rudimentary form emerged for one purpose and was adapted for various other purposes. But I would say, in terms of the basic emotions that the govern our everyday lives, you know, ranging from fear to envy to joy and including these things like altruism and empathy, broadly speaking we now know why they’re here. And they seem to comply in their dynamics with what the theory would predict.

I mean, there is separately from that, the question of consciousness, but that’s a metaphysical conundrum that is not, per se, answered by evolutionary psychology, but the more I say about that the less sense I will seem to make. So, I’ll stop there.

Question: Is there a class of human behaviors that evolutionary psychology can’t illuminate?

Robert Wright: Religion is not an adaptation. That is to say, it’s not here because it was conducive to the replication of the genes underlying it. I mean, I think there are genes underlying religion in the sense that all the kinds of basic emotions that are part of religious experience, things like “awe” for example, and various kinds of superstitious intuitions and some of the various things that might make up religion do themselves have a basis in the genes. It’s just that those genes weren’t preserved by natural selection because they gave rise to what we now call religious behavior. So, I think religion as we think of it is largely a product of cultural evolution. It took shape in essence, you might say, after natural selection did its work.

Question: How did religion emerge from evolved human traits and behaviors?

Robert Wright: Well, for example, take the intuition that you see in some kinds of religious context that there’s something that is a source of evil, or a source of contamination. Something that has this metaphysical property that should lead you to keep your distance. Well, that could make sense as a product of natural selection in the context of things that could give you a disease. So for example, it may be that the kind of revulsion that people have at kind of rotting flesh, or something – Okay, that’s bad stuff, get away from it. That could have a clear-cut foundation in natural selection. But that kind of aversion, the idea of something giving off some kind of vibes that should lead you to steer clear of it, can then become more of a religious conception in other contexts. Or an emphasis on ritual purity in that sense, this basic distinction between the pure and the kind of non-pure, and the idea that there’s these things you do to make sure you’re on the right side. That’s just one example of something whose ultimate roots could be in natural selection and yet there’s a kind of a – some cultural evolution has to happen before it assumes the forms that we’re most familiar with.

Question: How has religion itself evolved since our hunter-gatherer days?

Robert Wright: Well, to judge by observed hunter/gatherer societies, and there were a lot of them that have been observed before they had a whole lot of contact with more technologically advanced societies. To judge by them, there was a time before the invention of agriculture when apparently every society on the planet was essentially polytheistic. There was a belief that there were a lot of gods and spirits and they were responsible for the good things and the bad things. And in fact, it appears that the original function of religion was to figure out, why do good things happen to us? Why do bad things happen to us? How can we manipulate the forces responsible for those good things and bad things, which were assumed to be kind of human-like beings, psychologically, you know, these gods that were deposited. How can we manipulate those to increase the number of good things that will happen and reduce the number of bad things? How can we reduce the amount of disease, the number of horrible storms, and increase the number of wars we win, or the number of – the amount of food that grows around us or something. 

So, originally religion did not seem to have been concerned with morality the way we think of religion being now. And one reason is because in a hunter/gather society, morality is not such a complicated issue. When you’ve got a small group of people living around each other day-to-day, people just kind of keep each other honest. There’s not – as far as like theft, which is one thing that came to be a big issue, in a hunter/gather village, the two things about theft are, there’s no where to hide what you steal, and there’s not much to steal anyway. Right? So, it’s kind of not an issue.

Now, as time wore on and societies grew more complex, you had larger and larger societies, and people interacting with one another who weren’t on such kind of close terms, didn’t know each other so well. The more and more you did have what we consider kind of moral/ethical issues like theft. And then you do see religion begin to assume the role of the enforcer of these kinds of moral sanctions. So, when you get to kind of chiefdoms, which are when you have – at the point where you have agriculture, but writing hasn’t yet been invented, you have these kind of modestly complex societies known as chiefdoms, and in a lot of those you see these ideas that people who steal fruit from a tree that’s on somebody else’s property they will be punished by the gods and stuff like that.

Question: Is it valid to consider some faiths more “evolved” than others, or are all such distinctions inherently biased?

Robert Wright: Well religious beliefs have evolved over time. It’s that there are some kinds of beliefs that are more characteristic of large civilizations that existed only after the invention of writing. I wouldn’t say that that fact makes them better. The fact that they are more evolved in that sense is not a value judgment. On the other hand, it’s true that as time has worn on, especially in situation where people have had productive contact with different kinds of people. People with different ethnicities, different nations, that has tended to kind of broaden their moral horizon. This is something Peter Singers has documented in his book, The Expanding Circle. So, they tended to start thinking, well maybe it isn’t just people of our group that are human beings and deserve to be treated decently. Maybe people who speak a different language, people of a different ethnicity.

I think that constitutes moral progress. And sometimes that has been associated with religion. In other words, it doesn’t have to be, you can have a sheerly secular philosophical version of that belief, but given how pervasive religion has been in the belief system of most societies, that kind of moral progress has shown up in the evolution of religion. And I think you can call it moral progress. It’s not confined to religion and I think it’s a product of a kind of concrete forces – it kind of happens in recognition of enlightened self-interest. But I think it’s good. It’s one of the hopeful things about the direction of history that a belief that a lot of us take for granted now, the idea that people everywhere are human beings and deserve to be treated decently did have to be kind of invented, and was invented. And I think history was on the side of the eventual discovery of that moral truth.

Question: Which were the most surprising historical truths you uncovered about various religious figures and stories?

Robert Wright: Let’s see. I guess, I had never really taken a look at the question of what the historical Jesus may have been like. And there’s a tendency to think – I mean, people who are trying to – believers who are trying to reconcile their belief with growing reason to doubt that the gospels are all that reliable. The attempt to make a reconciliation has tended to move us in the direction that Jesus kind of said all the good stuff that’s attributed to him and there’s a tendency not to emphasize some of the bad stuff. Like, for example, when he seems to refer to a woman as a dog because she’s not Jewish. My conclusion, and I didn’t go into this having a bias, my conclusion was that actually it’s probably being closer to the reverse. That the emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds, which you do see start showing up in the gospels, probably didn’t come from Jesus, but was more a product of the way early Christianity evolved in the Roman Empire.

To me this is actually kind of heartening. I mean, I guess if I were a believing Christian, which I have not been since childhood, I might have another view of this. I might be kind of dispiriting to think that Jesus didn’t say all this stuff. But the reason I find it kind of good news is what I see happening in the Roman Empire is that just natural forces that emanate from the expansion of social organization, which social organization tends to do naturally. These forces nourished a doctrine of brotherly love that crosses ethnic and national bounds. In other words, I think this is a likely product of the natural direction of history that people would reach this conclusion. And for me, that’s heartening in itself. In a way, more heartening than the idea that, had it not been for this one man from Galilee, we would have never figured this out. I’d rather think that human history naturally gives rise to this sort of enlightenment.

Question: Are we moving toward greater reconciliation or greater strife among various faiths?

Robert Wright: I think history has tended to move people toward mutual acceptance, you might say. In other words, the moral compass has expanded over time if you compare us to the time when people in one hunter-gatherer village thought the people in the next village were subhuman. That doesn’t mean that continued progress is guaranteed. What is guaranteed, and this is what is interesting to me, and this is what leads me to think that it’s not crazy to say that there’s some larger purpose with a moral dimension unfolding through human history. What’s interesting to me is that the way history seems to be set up, although I know “set up” is sort of a biased term. I’m not sure that anybody here thinks it was set up. But the way the system works, is that if people don’t make the moral progress, they pay a price. So, right now, in the history of the world, if people in the different Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, don’t get better at accepting one another don’t get better at tolerance, it can be really bad for the world on an epic scale. You know, we could be talking about the collapse of the society. And I think this is built into the system and we’ve seen it time and time and time again that history forces people to either expand their moral compass or pay the price. So, all I can say for sure, is that – or pretty sure, is that I think the salvation of the world in the sense of just holding the system together, having some degree of peace and order, depends on further moral progress. That doesn’t mean the outcome will be good, but it’s interesting to me that the system drives us to this point where we either make the moral progress, or we pay the price.

And this is actually reminiscent of something that various biblical prophets were kind of saying in one sense of another. And not just biblical prophets, I would say Mohammad, I would say Abrahamic prophets in general. A common message is to say that salvation is possible so long as you align yourself more closely with the moral axis of the universe. Now, usually these prophets, they didn’t use the term, “moral axis of the universe,” of course, they used the term God. But they did think of God as the moral axis of the universe. And I would say that even now, even if you are secular, you can still say that the salvation of the world in this concrete sense of holding it together is going to depend on humanity aligning itself more closely with the moral axis of the universe, if you agree with me that that axis involves things like acceptance of people who are different than you and overcoming prejudices and biases and so on.

Question: If morality is to evolve further, must it evolve beyond religion?

Robert Wright: I mean, certainly the moral progress that is required to save the world can take place in a context devoid of religion. I mean the kind of enlightenment that it takes for people to accept one another is not something that has to take place in the context of religion. On the other hand, I certainly don’t think that progress, even that kind of ultimate progress that is necessary requires shedding religion, per se. It may require abandoning some beliefs that are characteristic in religion in some places, or in some brains right now; it certainly does. But you can certainly be abundantly moral, human, and enlightened person, and be religious in a meaningful sense. 

Now, there are certain doctrines that – there may be important religious doctrines. There are religious doctrines that are important to some people that will probably have to be shed, yes, for the good of the world. Certainly the idea that not only is my God kind of better than yours, but so long as you believe in the wrong God, we can’t do business, or I should kill you or something. But almost nobody actually believes that in any of these religions. If you look at the way people actually live, they’re much more practical than that. And so I wouldn’t say there are any mainstream beliefs that have to be abandoned. And we don’t have to have any single religion. All that’s really required is tolerance of other beliefs and in that sense maybe a certain amount of intellectual humility. But I don’t think you need some sort of merger of religious beliefs. There are doctrines that could help, like the notion of the god – the idea that the different gods that are worshipped are all different manifestations of the single underlying divine unity. That might be a productive thing for people to agree on. But even that, I wouldn’t say, is essential.

Question: Can a scientific worldview be reconciled with faith?

Robert Wright: Well I guess originally religion was doing what science does now, which is to say, it’s main function originally seems to have been to make sense of the world. And kind of the primordial religious hypothesis, the idea that all these forces of nature animated by beings that are psychologically very much like human beings, seems to be wrong. And science has rightly attained authority in this realm. And its success definitely undermines a number of specific religious beliefs. So, I’m not somebody that says science and religion are in these intrinsically separate realms and there is no conflict. There is a conflict between science and a lot of specific religious beliefs. But if the question is, is science compatible with religion in the most basic and generic sense of the term “religion?” I think it is. Certainly if you accept the definition like William James’ definition of religious beliefs is, which is, and I may not get this just exactly right, but the idea that there is an unseen order and our supreme interest lies on harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order. I would say the idea that I personally hold, which is that there is a moral order built into – almost into the trajectory of organic life on this planet, but certainly kind of human history. I’d say even if you believe that much without even addressing the question of whether the order was set up by some sort of personal divine being or something. Without even going there, if you believe that there is a moral order, and perhaps even in that sense an overarching purpose, again leaving aside the question of where the purpose comes from. And if you think it warrants you orienting your life with respect to it and that that brings you closer to moral truth, I think by James’ definition that qualifies as religion. And I think that’s fully compatible with science. For that matter, the Deism, the idea that God kind of wound up the clock and let it go is fully compatible with science. That’s why it was popular in the Enlightenment and around the founding of America. And for that matter, people believing in an interventionist god, science doesn’t – you can never prove that there’s never been an intervention. Right? So, even that is not in the strictest sense incompatible with science, although it’s not kind of the way I think of it.

So, I do think lots of specific religious beliefs have to be let go if you’re going to reconcile religion with science; certainly including a literal reading of Genesis. And I personally don’t believe any of the revelations in the Abrahamic lineage were actual, literal revelations. But I think reconciliation is possible.

Question: Since 9/11, has America adopted wise short-term and long-term policies in the war on terror?

Robert Wright: Well I am much more pessimistic about the chances of our – I guess I’m more pessimistic about the outcome on the so-called war on terror now than I was shortly after 911. And I would say the mistake I think we’ve made is to overestimate the near term threat and underestimate the long-term threat. So, the big threat is still years off when you might have terrorist groups truly in possession of nuclear weapons, or truly devastating biological weapons. And I don’t mean anthrax, which is not – doesn’t leave anything contagious. But truly devastating biological weapons. That’s the thing to worry about. And the trouble is that if you get scared about the short term and start overreacting to that threat by doing thing like invading countries, what you wind up doing is making it more likely that the long-term threat will be realized because you increase the number of people who hate you and you kind of help do the job of terrorist recruiters for them. And just little things like reacting to a failed attempt to bomb an airplane by saying, “Well, maybe we should start doing ethnic profiling in airports and stuff.” I mean, if you don’t think Osama Bin Laden would love to see us do ethnic profiling, then I think you really don’t understand what he’s after. I mean, that’s exactly playing into his hands. And so, I just think that’s the sense in which – one of many in which being kind of panicked about the short term, when in truth, there aren’t any massive short-term threats out there, is making it more likely that the more apocalyptic scenario in the long-term could unfold. I think that’s the big mistake we’ve made is to just not realize that hatred will be increasingly lethal as time goes on, so it’s better to generate less of it than more.

Question: If the US were to start over in its strategy in the war on terror, what would you advise?

Robert Wright: I would say, first of all, think about establishing structures of international governance that would effectively police weapons of mass destruction. And we haven’t made any, if much, progress on that front since 911. And don’t be distracted from that by short-term adventures that are kind of focused on a single seeming manifestation of the same threat. Like in Iraq. I mean, we actually knew there were no – no one thought there were actual nuclear weapons, per se, in their – or truly contagious biological weapons for which we lacked a vaccine or anything like that. So, we should not have gotten sidetracked by these various things. And I think what that would call for is a president who really gave the “nothing to fear but fear itself” kind of sermon in an inspirational way. In other words, that irrational fear is the greatest enemy. It’s going to lead us to play into their hands.

Question: Does Afghanistan have any remaining strategic value, or is it now a distraction from long-term anti-terror strategy?

Robert Wright: Well, Afghanistan is an example of the damage that can be done by Iraq. And we got distracted from Afghanistan by Iraq and now both that and the Pakistan situation festered. I mean the strategic significance of Afghanistan is that it’s interacting with Pakistan in a way that tends to destabilize Pakistan. And Pakistan does have nuclear weapons. So, you would not want a radical group to take charge of Pakistan. I don’t think that’s on the verge of happening, but it’s the reason that that region matters to America’s national interest in the most kind of concrete sense. 

But I guess I think also, there’s – in a way this gets back to evolutionary psychology. We have to be mindful of what our impulses evolved for. So, the impulse of retribution, why was it designed by natural selection? I mean, now the way you see it played out is, we’ve got to get Osama Bin Laden, or we’ve got to get somebody else because of something they have done to us. And it often, you do like to punish people who have done bad things, that is true. But you have to remember that the retributive impulse itself was designed for a different environment by natural selection, a hunter-gatherer environment. And in a modern environment, it can go awry. I mean, the most obvious example is road rage. I mean driving does something to you and you briefly have this impulse to actually pursue the person and do something that can get you both killed, and there’s like no payoff, when you think about it. The purpose of seeking vengeance in the ancestral environment was to show people that you can’t be trifled with; it was for the demonstration effect. And when you’re on a super highway, there’s nobody you know who is observing you act on your road rage. And that’s just an example of an impulse that can be completely dysfunctional and I just think too much of our foreign policy is governed by impulses like that, that we’re not sufficiently critical of.

Question: What excites you most about new media right now?

Robert Wright: I’m getting to the age where some new media are starting to seem threatening. I mean, first of all, I would say things beyond a certain age, things come along like Twitter and you’re like, do I have to figure this out? And so far, I haven’t surrendered. It’s like Facebook came along and I’m like, okay, I’ll join Facebook. And Twitter, okay I’m paying a little attention. But the older you get, the less enthusiastic you are about your social environment kind of being transformed.

Aside from that, there’s a separate problem that I think is a genuine problem, leaving aside my age, which is that in general, for a long time ever since the – well really long time, the tendency has been as information processing and transmission gets easier and cheaper, it’s been easier and easier to organize kind of smaller and smaller interest groups, you might say. Even back with computerized mass mail 40 or 50 years ago, that’s what allowed people to organize taxpayer’s into interest groups, or old people into interest groups, and now the internet basically is an extension of that same trend is leading of the further kind of balkanization of opinion. So, people go to their blogs where they basically it’s preaching to the choir, they hear things they already agree with and there’s this cocooning effect. And I think that’s a real problem. 

And Bloggingheads, I didn’t really start out thinking about it this way, but it has shown the capacity to some extent counteract that just because if you bring two people together in a conversation. I mean, we do split screen video dialogues, it’s harder for them, even if they strenuously disagree with things, it’s harder for them to be uncivil toward one another. And it’s harder for them to avoid the serious arguments that is being made by the other side. So, it’s been kind of interesting to see that effect and to try to cultivate a comment section that is fairly ideologically diverse because you don’t see that much of that on the internet. Most comment sections for most blogs are fairly ideologically homogenous. So, that’s an interesting, you know, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s an interesting attempt to some extent to transcend the really naturally kind of balkanizing and tribalizing tendencies of the internet.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen